For centuries, China had fallen prey to hoards of invaders from the north, in particular the Tartars and later the Mongols. By 1259, Khubilai Khan (1215-1294), the grandson of the celebrated Ghengis Khan, declared himself Emperor of China, while also exerting control over Korea. During the years 1266 to 1274, the "Great Khan" sent emissaries to Japan in an attempt to establish diplomatic relations, but his envoys failed to secure compacts with the suspicous Japanese government; in fact, the Japanese beheaded a number of these hapless envoys. With Korea as his ally, the Great Khan initiated his first invasion of Japan in late 1274, easily taking the islands of Tsushima and Ikishima north of Kyûshû (just south of Korea). The Mongols gained little else, however, as unexpectedly fierce Japanese resistence, a shortage of weapons and provisions, and a violent rainstorm all conspired to compel a retreat.
The Japanese, anticipating another invasion, spent the next seven years fortifying their defenses along the northern shore of Kyûshû. They erected a stone wall at Hakata Bay stretching from Hakozaki through Hakata and past Imazu — a massive, five-year-long project that would play a pivotal role in the coming battle. All the while, the Japanese were also devising military stretegies aimed at repulsing the vast Mongol and Korean armies and fleets. When the Korean forces attacked Tsushima and Ikishima in June of 1281, they met with far greater resistence than they had encountered in the first invasion. The main body of the Mongol invasion forces then entered Hakata Bay, but its attempts to take the Japanese northern flank were unsuccessful. Regrouping at Tsushima and then launching another attempt to take land was also a failure. Finally, on August 15, the now celebrated kamikaze ("divine wind") — a typhoon of momumental proportions — sealed the fate of the Mongols, obliterating the fleet and leading to mass slaughter (by the end of the conflict, an estimated one-third of the 40,000 northern Chinese troops had perished, along with half of the 100,000 southern Chinese invaders). From that day forward, the Japanese considered the kamikaze to be a weapon from the gods, a symbol of divine protection that would lead them to an exaggerated ethnocentric view of the fate awaiting any foreign invader.
This composition falls within the genre called sensô-e (war prints). Its style clearly shows the influence of the Edo master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and his fondness for musha-e ("warrior prints"), often in triptych, and set back in time, highlighting heroic feats and great battles throughout Japanese history. Kuniyuki's main subject is identified in the large tri-color cartouche at the upper right, which bears the date of the Mongul defeat (Kôan shi nen hachi getsu — eighth month, fourth year of Kôan, or 8/1281). The scene depicts the Mongol troops in a rout, fleeing in panic from advancing Japanese samurai, while their sailing ships are blasted to bits from canon mounted in the fortifications along Hakata Bay.
At least, that's the ostensible story. What one notices on closer inspection, however, is that the ships are a modern concoction loosely modeled after the sort of Western sailing vessel that played a critical role in opening up Japan to the West during the 1850s-60s. Ambiguously, the small cartouche says that despite some inaccuracies in the picture, the public can surely imagine the true scene. What the artist appears to be saying is that just as the vast Mongol armada was defeated by Japan's martial prowess aided by divine intervention, so, too, would the barbarians of the West suffer defeat at the hands of a nation blessed by a sacred connection with the gods.
Of course, declaring a conceit of this kind in a straightforward manner would have run afoul of government censorship, as the illustration of current events was prohibited. Yet curiosity about these pressing matters was at a fever pitch in the 1860s. The shogunate continued to lose its grip (it would collapse entirely in 1868) and recent incidents had raised anxieties among the Japanese populace in regard to Japan's readiness to confront the modern naval powers anchored off their shore. In the Namamugi Incident of 1862, an English merchant named Charles Richardson was murdered near Yokohama when he and some companions rode into the retinue of the daimyô of Satsuma; the British retaliated the following year with a bombardment of Kagoshima in Satsuma. In the same year, British warships sank two vessels belonging to the daimyô of Choshû in response to others in his fleet having fired upon European ships sailing near Shimonoseki. Kuniyuki and his publisher had their fingers on the pulse of a print-buying public looking for some assurance of Japanese resilience, and so they offered them a clever pastiche — a recounting of a prototypical victory from nearly six centuries earlier masquerading as an allegory for current events.
This print may have been issued in Edo, but its drawing style and the puzzling censor and publisher seals also suggest the possibility of a Kamigata (Kyoto-Osaka region) source. The publication of books and prints detailing contemporary events would have been less risky away from Edo, the epicenter of shogunal control, particularly if the subject matter were presented in an oblique manner, as in Kuniyuki's print. The censor seal (illustrated far left) is undocumented and may indeed be a fake imprint, intended to make it appear as if the design had been vetted through the usual gyôji (censor) or nanushi (headman) system. As for the publisher's seal (reading Tsukiji Daitô), there is indeed a district in Tokyo called Tsukiji, yet its inclusion here may have been a fabrication to misdirect the official gaze away from the shop or studio responsible for the project. While admitting that our conclusions are tentative, we offer this highly unusual triptych as a design published in Kamigata.